It was a warm and beautiful summer day in 1978. I had walked from my home in Alhambra about one mile to an address on Almansor St. There was a Methodist church on the corner of Main St. and Almansor. To the West was a florist shop and next to that shop was a YMCA building. To the South was a Mortuary. I was a recent graduate from Arizona State University. I had a master’s degree in Spanish Literature and two teaching credentials, one in Learning Handicapped and one in Spanish.
I had heard from someone at a house party that there was a school there that was looking for aides. I called the school and was given an appointment with the Director. His name was Dennis Matsui. I walked up to the front desk and was greeted by a bright, friendly, and energetic woman who welcomed me and announced my arrival. The front office was so small all I had to do was turn around and I was in Dennis’ office. He was tall and slender with dark hair and dark eyes. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that were fashionable at the time. He had a quick smile but as our eyes met there was something familiar and peaceful in his manner. I felt at peace as well.
I had reached a milestone in my career. I was fortunate enough to be at a place in my life in which I had many choices. I knew I wanted to teach, and I knew who I wanted to teach. My focus was to make a difference in the lives of children who had limited access to quality instruction. I had been trained by not only great college professors, but I also was an intern with a national teaching program called The Teacher Corp. This group was the precursor to the current Teach America program. It was an intensive two-year program that gave us best practices in instruction as well as the ability to network with similar interns from all over the United States. They came from all social, cultural, and economic backgrounds. We all had a mission, to make a difference in education. We were the affirmative action generation. In the late 60’s we had walked out of our high schools to protest poor conditions and limited opportunities. We had marched against a war in which a large percentage of the dead were our friends and brothers. As women, we began to awaken to the possibility that there were systems in place that resulted in lower wages and limited career advancements.
In was in this context that Dennis and I began our conversation. I had wondered how much of myself I could share with him. I wondered if I had to play a role so that I could get my first teaching job and begin my life’s work. I did not want to work for the huge bureaucratic system that was LAUSD. I was a product of those public schools and I felt that the issues of money, race, and class would somehow dampen my love of teaching. I wanted to look outside the “system” in search of other ways to make a difference with urban youth.
And so, began my journey. The interview lasted over two hours. I found in Dennis a kindred spirit. I became curious as to what the commonality could be. He appeared so different from me. His life so different. I realize now I was filled with assumptions about who he was, and these assumptions might have gotten in the way of our dialogue/conversation. As he kept sharing his ideas about education, I found them to be remarkably like my own.
He then offered me a teacher’s aide position. I felt I could keep learning from this man and from the school he and his co-founder Dr. Nancy Lavelle had created. I felt that they were also on a journey to make a difference. I decided to take the job.
The vision for Almansor was the seed for all that we are today at the Institute for the Redesign of Learning. Our mission statements have gone through many variations, but the vision has stayed true to its source. Our very first staff meetings were held around one table at the Arby’s restaurant next door. Our staff in attendance had Administration, office support, Early Education, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, Transition High School, Adaptive Physical Education, Speech Pathology, and Mental Health. From the very beginning it was known that in order to stay effective, our organization would always have to change and grow and anticipate the needs of our community.
From the first four classrooms in 1974 we have now two campuses serving hundreds of students, we provide services in Mental Health all over Los Angeles, we provide Supported Employment to adults, we have a Transition Adult Services department, we have an Early Education program serving infants through pre-school, our programs provide internships and training opportunities in education, mental health, and speech pathology. Growing from four classrooms in a church building to serving thousands of students and adults throughout Los Angeles County is an incredible story. It is a story of which to be immensely proud.
Over time the Institute for the Redesign of Learning has built a reputation for excellence, but it still requires reflection and team and the ability to treat each other as whole, able, and complete just the way we are and just the way we are not. It requires a Leadership Team that continues to grow and adapt and anticipate needs.
Forty years of my time with this organization have passed. I feel so blessed to have found a band of brothers and sisters that are committed to a world in which no one is left out or left behind. It is not easy, there are breakdowns, there are miracles and there are great celebrations.
If you are at all curious about our programs, including our Taking Charge for Educators programs, please explore our website. It is a time of great possibilities. We welcome all who willing to join the journey.